Just over a month ago I wrote about the special launch-day deal Amazon.com was having on the MP3 version of Jeff Beck’s new Emotion & Commotion CD. Over the last six weeks I’ve kept the CD on my iPod in heavy rotation. Needless to say I have found something to like in the first studio release in seven years from the 65-year old legendary guitarist. At the same time, this is also my least favorite Jeff Beck release since his early 90’s rockabilly outing Crazy Legs. Let me give a bit of background and then dig into a song-by-song review.
Grammy-winning guitarist Jeff Beck’s new album Emotion & Commotion today sees it street release, and is now available as an MP3 at Amazon for only $4.99.
Beck recorded his first studio album in seven years late last year at Sarm Studios in London with award-winning producers Steve Lipson and Trevor Horn. To create the album’s diverse sound, Beck used a number of musicians, including appearances by frequent collaborators Vinnie Colaiuta (drums), Jason Rebello (keyboards), and Tal Wilkenfeld (bass). The album also includes contributions from a trio of singers: Imelda May (“Lilac Wine”), Olivia Safe (“Elegy For Dunkirk”), and Grammy-winner Joss Stone (“I Put A Spell On You” and “There’s No Other Me”).
To complement the innovative tones he coaxes from his guitar, Beck recorded with a 64-piece orchestra on songs that range from Puccini’s immortal aria “Nessun Dorma” and “Elegy For Dunkirk” from the film Atonement to “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” from The Wizard Of Oz and Jeff Buckley’s interpretation of “Corpus Christi Carol.”
As I got ready to buy Emotion & Commotion I remembered two things: his 2003 recording ‘Jeff’, and his tribute to Les Paul with Imelda May at the 2010 Grammy Awards. I liked ‘Jeff’, but it was my least favorite (by a lot) of his three record techno-string from 1999-2003, and frankly felt rather over-produced and commercial. But compared to the Grammy performance it was pure unbridled genius. I really had no prior knowledge of Imelda May, nor have I sought her out since – I thought she was dreadful. I thought the whole thing was bland and dirge-like, and as I saw her name on the list of ‘guest stars’ for Beck’s new recording a sense of dread came over me.
You see, I’m not into the whole ‘old fogey revival tour’ thing: I didn’t think very much of Herbie Hancock’s Grammy-winning ‘River: The Joni Letters’, as I felt every bit of it could be tossed away and the originals put in place for a major improvement. And watching The Who on the Super Bowl … perhaps the less said the better. To me, one major attraction about Jeff Beck is he is constantly in motion – forward motion. So thinking of him as a side-line on his own recording with a bunch of singers just sickened me.
Fortunately there are only three singing-dominated songs, and in all but one case the singing complements the music nicely. And as I expected, that one case – my least favorite song on the CD – is the song featuring Imelda May, who I find as bland and useless in the studio setting as she was live. Joss Stone, however … brings it. So let’s get to the songs!
Corpus Christi Carol – the lyrical nature of Jeff Beck’s playing always adds to whatever song he plays, and this is no exception. The mix of soft strings, flowing synth pads and Beck’s softly plucked guitar serve as an introspective start for the CD. There is no bombast, but there is a certain hopefulness portrayed against a rather melancholy harmonic structure.
Hammerhead - after the quiet start of Corpus Christi Carol, and a simple wah-wah opening this song hits like a hammer to the forehead. It is a solid mid-pace rocker meant to feature Beck’s brilliance … and it works. The heavy horn section is distracting and feels over-produced and heavy-handed, especially early on, but then the groove is established and the rest of the song just carries you along for the ride. Things never lose control, but during the largest of Beck’s excursions you are reminded of why he is alone amongst his peer group of British Invasion rockers who still deserve the titles ‘relevant’ and ‘innovative’. This is the most rockin’ solo guitar song in the entire set, and for me that is a bit of a let down.
Never Alone – this is my favorite song on the album. The melody is instantly singable, every second is filled with touching melodicism, and provides a great platform for the entire group to show off – a reminder that this isn’t just Jeff Beck & others. He is nicely complemented here by the keyboard/bass/drum trio of Jason Rebello, Tal Wilkenfeld and Vinnie Colaiuta. As the ‘out chorus chimes in, Rebello is layering thick pads, Colaiuta provides a deftly syncopated backdrop to Wilkenfeld’s expanded harmonic backdrop. And on top of it all is Beck at his very best – not showing off, just producing brilliant melodic phrases and statements that show him in complete control.
Over The Rainbow – some of Jeff Beck’s earlier recordings contained a brief ending piece that was pure beauty, and this reminds me of that. It is thoughtful, lyrical, well executed, and yet it is one of my least favorite songs. Perhaps it is because it feels like a feature rather than a nice aside like The Final Piece from Blow By Blow. Yet my family loves it – and I can understand that – it is an absolutely beautiful rendition of the classic song.
I Put A Spell On You [Feat. Joss Stone] – I’m not a huge vocal fan, and don’t know much about Joss Stone other than she looks something like Taylor Swift but sings like Janis Joplin meets … well, something you just wouldn’t believe coming out of this young woman’s body! The intro lays it out – this is a down-and-out blues number. Joss Stone enters and leaves no doubt – gut-wrenching blues vocals and nice comping from guitar and piano and solid backing rhythm section work complete the story. As you are about to leave the first chorus and head into Beck’s first tortured solo, the song is nearly killed as the string section kicks in – again, back to the theme of so much of the recording feeling over produced. There is no place for strings in a song like that!
Serene - another slow-starter, Serene grows quickly into another group feature, similar to Never Alone. But this is more of a mid-tempo piece – not so slow as the title and intro would have you believe. The initial melody and rhythm suggest a world music inspiration, but as the song takes shape it is just a beautiful and timeless piece of music. The chorus repeats the syncopated melody and gives Wilkenfeld a bit more space to stretch out melodically. Unlike the previous song, the addition of strings and backing vocals adds to the dramatic impact as you shift from a second chorus into a more open Beck solo section. More than anything else this reminds me of an updated version of some of Beck’s stuff from Blow By Blow.
Lilac Wine [Feat. Imelda May] – OK, so Imelda May is a talented singer who evokes a certain 40’s/50’s feel. I just don’t like her phrasing, style or what she brings to Jeff Beck’s music. I wasn’t sure when watching teh Grammy Awards, but after a couple of dozen times through this song I am clear – this song sounds like May and Beck weren’t even together when it was made. Heck it sounds like it was assembled by bits played all over the world into a hard drive somewhere. The interplay between the band on other slow songs is lost, the touch-and-go feel between Beck & Stone is nowhere to be found, and while no slower than Corpus Christi Carol or Never Alone it feels dirge-like … and I couldn’t wait for it to end.
Nessun Dorma - the smooth transition from the previous song made me think I was getting more Imelda May, but suddenly my mind flashed a vision of Luciano Pavarotti and I realized I was hearing Beck playing Puccini’s Nessun Dorma. The timeless beauty of the melody is a perfect foil for Beck’s seemingly inexhaustible ability to produce gorgeous and lyrical melodic lines.
There’s No Other Me [Feat. Joss Stone] – deep hearfelt blues that is by far my favorite vocal track on the CD. Joss Stone reminds us that even in the age of studio tricks and auto-tune there is room for excellent vocals belted out with feeling. This is a great duet between Beck and Stone that really lets the band tear it wide open. Normally when I get a great guitar intro I feel it is spoiled by vocals, but not hear – this track is really better for having both artists attacking!
Elegy For Dunkirk [Feat. Olivia Safe] – Olivia Safe is a soprano and here she serves more as an instrument than a singer. The title tells you to expect a touching and heartfelt reflection from this theme from the film Atonement, and that is exactly what Beck delivers. For those buying the CD, this is the final song, and it is a beautiful ending.
Cry Me A River – ending on a lyrical and inspired note as I would expect, this ballad features heavy synth pads along Beck’s intimately close-miked guitar work. When the band joins in you feel like you’re sitting after hours at a small club where a few guys are just playing some ideas together – but these guys have been playing for ages so it all instantly comes together. This song is an ‘Amazon exclusive’ and makes me happy I bought it there – it is one of the best songs on the CD!
As I reflect on Emotion & Commotion I find myself with mixed feelings. On the one hand there are some wonderfully beautiful songs here, but on the other hand it feels like a big step in the same direction of 2003’s Jeff, and away from the experimental fury that produced the brilliant Who Else and You Had it Coming from 1999 and 2001.
There is brilliant guitar work here throughout, and some wonderful songs … but overall it feels just too neat and tidy. There was an obvious decision to focus on producing more melodic works and less frenetic idea-streaming. It isn’t THAT element that bothers me – in fact, the ballad Never Alone is my favorite song on the record. It is how often I felt the heavy hand of the producer tinkering with everything, making sure it is neat and clean and there are plenty of textural elements added.
Will you like this CD? Almost invariably yes, considering you’ve made it this far! Jeff Beck remains a vital and inventive musician who still has lots to teach younger musicians about how to work a melodic line around and through a melodic structure. And his band is right there with him the whole way. The pairing with Joss Stone provides some great blues workouts – particularly the growling There’s No Other Me. And the sweet ending of Cry Me a River leaves me wistful and feeling like any and all mistakes here can easily be forgiven to continue enjoying the sole remaining British Invasion rocker doing anything worth hearing.
Where to Buy: Amazon.com MP3 Store
What I Like:
+ Excellent melodic guitar work
+ Great band interplay when they get the chance
+ Soaring duets with Joss Stone
+ Jeff Beck shows why he is the greatest guitarist of the British Invasion
What Needs Improvement:
– Overly produced
– Too few risks
– Too much ‘filler’ for such a short CD (it is barely 40 minutes)
– Not enough room for Beck and the band to stretch out.
– Inappropriate use of strings in places
To close out, here is a YouTube clip of Jeff Beck performing Never Alone in Sydney, Australia on tour this spring.